- The pregnancy of any employee is not a stumbling block to making profit in any organization.
- Jully Akoth, a certified lactation counselor at Homa Bay County Referral Hospital, says mothers should exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of life.
- Pediatricians say breast milk is made up of at least 87% of water and keeps babies not only hydrated but also manages their body temperature, lubricates joints, and also protects body organs.
Mary, a public school teacher, is a mother of a nine-month-old baby girl in Nyaneje Village, Homa Bay County, Kenya.
Before she had the baby, she thought that her baby would exclusively breastfeed for one year or longer.
But she was mistaken, as her maternity leave expired three after her giving birth.
“I imagined sweet moments feeding my baby, as she quietly rested in my arms. It was practically a very anxious moment for me. I had seen some mothers welcome God’s blessings in unique ways, hence my optimism too,” she says.
The teacher, who opted to use only her first name to remain anonymous, says her baby girl, Purity, was able to breastfeed within minutes after birth, and according to nurses at St. Peter Claver’s Mission Dispensary, Mawego, the baby was in high spirits.
She looked forward to a healthy baby, expectant with hope and mother’s love.
A depressing leave
“It was an awesome moment for me as a mother. After a few weeks of breastfeeding my daughter, we were in a real groove, at least, physically. But emotionally, it was another story. I suffered from postpartum anxiety and whenever anything went slightly wrong, I would panic,” the new mother says.
Mary’s stress and frustrations were amplified by the fact that she had only three months of maternity leave.
Even though the baby was feeding well, her feeding schedule would change and that sent her into an environment of anxiety and worry.
She attributes this to a lack of adequate policy guiding breastfeeding.
“And whenever I got anxious, my supply of breastmilk would dwindle,” she notes.
Mary’s story is the story of all career mothers in Kenya and Africa who give birth and look forward to exclusive breastfeeding.
According to health experts, the three months of maternity leave is not enough time for effective breastfeeding and bonding.
Breast milk, according to UNESCO, is packed with essential nutrients such as proteins, minerals, antibodies, and vitamins, which are uniquely adapted to a baby’s needs.
Pediatricians say breast milk is made up of at least 87% of water and keeps babies not only hydrated but also manages their body temperature, lubricates joints, and also protects body organs.
Emma Kaudo, a nutritionist based in Kisumu, says breast milk consists of about 7 percent carbohydrates, which provides the baby with energy, and four percent fats.
“Breast milk contains at least 7 percent carbohydrates – mostly lactose, a sugar that provides the baby with energy. There is 2 percent of bioactive components and proteins which cannot be found in powdered milk,” says Ms. Kaudo.
World Breastfeeding Week
In August this year, during World Breastfeeding Week organized by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), leading health organizations gave the most unambiguous indication of breastmilk’s role in babies.
Each year, during World Breastfeeding Week, August 1st through 7th, the world recognizes the importance of breastfeeding and nutrition for children to get a healthy start in life.
“Newborns and infants, pregnant women, and breastfeeding mothers are the most vulnerable in times of conflict and disaster. They are often in emotional distress, desperation, and are struggling to get adequate nutrition,” says Weihui Wang, a child protection expert with World Vision.
The United Children Education Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organization (WHO) now underscore the urgent need to have space for women and children where they can have protection and privacy as well as normalcy.
The two leading health organizations insist governments and their agencies must protect expectant and lactating mothers.
“Increasing the breastfeeding period to universal levels could save more than 700,000 lives every year, the majority being children under six months.
It decreases the risk of mothers developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease,” says Kristy Newnham, a Neonatal Intensive Care Specialist in Melbourne, Australia.
According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breastfeeding has a number of health benefits for mothers and babies and can help protect both from illnesses.
Jully Akoth, a certified lactation counselor at Homa Bay County Referral Hospital, says mothers should exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of life.
“There should be no foods or liquids provided to a newborn baby, at least for the first six months, including water.
The infants should be breastfed on demand, in this case as often as the child wants, day and night,” she adds.
As global crises continue to threaten the health and nutrition of millions of babies, the vital importance of breastfeeding as the ultimate possible start in a child’s life cannot be underestimated.
Employers should refrain from pegging the low performance of the organizations on the absence of employees who are on maternity leave.
Breastfeeding, baby’s first vaccine
“Breastfeeding is a crucial contributor to a baby’s good health. It acts as a baby’s first vaccine, protecting them from common childhood illnesses,” says Dr. Yvonne Duque, Director of Women and Young Children Friendly Spaces (WAYCS) in the Philippines.
The UNICEF and WHO, during this year’s World Breastfeeding Week, called out governments to allocate increased resources to protect, promote and support breastfeeding policies and programs, especially for the most vulnerable communities putting up in emergency settings.
“Breastfeeding guarantees a safe, nutritious and accessible food source for babies and young children.
It offers a powerful line of defense against disease and all forms of child malnutrition, including wasting,” says Dr. Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General.
Now, Mary continues to wait for that moment the government would heed the call of global health organizations to extend the period of maternity leave.
In the past, and in some organizations, women have faced a myriad of challenges, including discrimination and sexual harassment, especially when they are pregnant.
“Just three months after giving birth, and you are back to work. We go through a lot during and after pregnancy. Both the baby and I need protection from physical, emotional, and social harm.
I hope my employer would recommend necessary legislations in a bid to revise the period of maternity leave,” the frustrated mother of one says.
The UNICEF terms it “insensitive and unbelievable” that mothers have only three months to overcome emotional distress and physical exhaustion after giving birth.
According to UNICEF, a woman’s pregnancy cannot be a cause for poor performance for an organization with proper management.
Pregnancy not a stumbling block
“The pregnancy of any employee is not a stumbling block to making profits and will never be a basis for the performance of any company if there are proper structures of management and execution of duties.
Every organization must exclusively understand employees’ rights and freedoms,” says Etleva Kadili, UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa.
In the past, pregnant women would apply for maternity leave even before giving birth.
The scenario changed as today, they are expected to apply for maternity leave once they have delivered.
This, in essence, does not give the expectant mothers the freedom to adjust to the ever-changing emotional environments they go through.
“These mothers need privacy while breastfeeding. The poor sanitation experienced by mothers in emergency settings such as in the work environment mean that many babies are missing out on the benefits of breastfeeding to help them survive,” says Shaheen Nilofer, UNICEF Representative to Kenya.
Abdul Samad Rabiu Africa Initiative (ASR Africa), a continental organization supporting health institutions across the continent, says with an exclusive breastfeeding moment, life is preserved, nourished, and enriched.
Research conducted by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) last December 2022 established that fewer than half of all newborn babies breastfed in the first hour of after birth, leaving more of them vulnerable to disease and death.
Below the standards
Regrettably enough, only 44% of infants are exclusively breastfed for the full first six months after birth, short of the World Health Assembly target of 50% by 2025.
“There is need to protect caregivers and health care workers from the unethical marketing influence of the formula industry by fully adopting and implementing the International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes,” says UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore.
The WHO understands hospitals are not just to cure the ill.
They exist to promote life and ensure people can thrive and live their lives to full potential.
“As part of every country’s drive to achieve universal health coverage, there is no better or more crucial place to start than ensuring meaningful breastfeeding,” says Ms. Nilofer.
The WHO has since developed ten guidelines describing how hospitals should operate.
It zeroes in on a written breastfeeding policy, staff competencies and antenatal and post-natal care, including breastfeeding support for mothers.
The guideline recommends limited use of breast milk substitutes, rooming-in, responsive feeding, and educating parents on using bottles and pacifiers.
The guideline, titled Protecting, Promoting and Supporting Breastfeeding in Facilities Providing Maternity and Newborn Services, was issued in November 2017.
It focuses on early initiation of breastfeeding within one hour of birth, protects the newborn from acquiring infections, and reduces newborn mortality.
According to data collected by UNICEF and shared by WABA, South Asian countries top the exclusive breastfeeding rates for babies up to five months old at 61 percent.
At 55 percent, East and Southern Africa have the second highest breastfeeding rates, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean at 43 percent, and Eastern Europe and Central Asia at 42 percent.
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Governments must now align their operations with the new guidelines so that breastfeeding mothers and babies get the best post-natal care and attention, which should include designated breastfeeding rooms at the workplace.